Tuesday, December 23, 2014

News Hits: Detroit proposes timetable for urban livestock policy

Posted By on Tue, Dec 23, 2014 at 11:16 AM

You’ve heard the one about the hedge fund manager and a Detroit goat farm, right? Earlier this year, Mark Spitznagel made national headlines for opening a goat farm in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood. Within days, city officials told Spitznagel to take his goats elsewhere.

Then, in October, Detroit police and animal control officers seized chickens and three pygmy goats from the home of David and Sky Brown on the city’s west side. Sky Brown told the Wall Street Journal that when officers arrived unannounced, it was “the most traumatic experience of my life.”

Of course, these incidents prompted a number of onlookers to comment on the peculiar decision from a city facing rampant crime to go after a couple with livestock. Why go after well-to-do residents with what appears to be a minor infraction when, say, the city still experiences more than three carjackings daily? With more than 300 murders last year, Detroit still leads the nation in that dreary statistic, even as its total has dropped 11 percent year-over-year, according to the most recent crime statistics available.

As Scott Beyer, who spoke with the Browns this month, put it in the Wall Street Journal, the couple’s animals should’ve been a “minor concern.”

“The couple had good neighborhood rapport, epitomizing the sort of urban pioneers that Detroit wishes to attract,” Beyer wrote. “The animals should have been a minor concern amid the city’s rampant crime.”

But, the city has an ordinance that bans farm animals. And, Beyer wrote, as of late, Detroit has been enforcing those ordinances, something that has been long overlooked due to bureaucratic dysfunction.

It speaks to the concept of "broken windows" policing, the idea that if a police department goes after low-level crime, it will prevent larger incidents from occurring. Of course, it's easier to arrest someone for carrying a joint, or issue a citation to someone for a minor ordinance, than, say, clear a murder.

Recent articles in publications like VICE and The Guardian have focused on how this has played a role in Detroit. And, as writer Justin Peters put it in Slate, the concept doesn't work. Peters zeroed-in on a comment from New York's mayor Bill de Blasio, who defended broken windows policing by saying, "Breaking a law is breaking a law, and it has to be addressed."

In response, Peters wrote: "That's nonsense. The cornerstone of effective policing is discretion."

Whether you agree that such oversight of the slightest mishaps merits Detroit’s resources, when it comes to urban livestock, the city has — at the very least — begun to take the necessary steps to enact policy fit for Detroit in the 21st century. And, perhaps, to avoid generating the kind of negative headlines in the future that it brought upon itself with Spitznagel and the Browns.

This past June, in a report from Detroit City Council’s Legislative Policy Division (LPD), officials explained the city has considered the need for an ordinance guiding urban livestock.
“The city code regulating farm animals no longer reflects current reality, especially with varying degrees of vacancy within neighborhoods, which more easily facilitates such activity, as well as with the growth of urban agriculture in general,” the report says.

Many residents are keeping fowls, hens, goats, and even honey bees. And there’s an “increasing” number of people interested in doing the same, according to the report.
There are a number of positives associated with urban agriculture: For example, “livestock are used in many places as therapy animals providing a sense of peace and bringing out nurturing qualities in individuals with a variety of physiological and social challenges,” the report says.

And, children seem naturally drawn to animals, the report says, and they “certainly benefit from learning the responsibilities of caring for such livestock.”

A number of concerns have been raised about the possible expansion of urban agriculture in Detroit. On one end of the spectrum exist farm enthusiasts who feel they have a right to keep livestock on their property, the report says; On the other side, others worry their rights to a quiet, “traditional urban setting” would be violated. (The latter gave News Hits pause, as we wondered what cities ever have maintained a so-called quiet, “traditional urban setting.”)

The upshot? There’s obvious interest, but it’s going to take work to craft sensible policy.

In a report dated Dec. 8 from LPD, officials laid out a proposed timeline to implement a local ordinance on urban livestock. The report, from LPD interim director David Whitaker and city planner Kathryn Lynch Underwood, says the city is working with nonprofit urban design firm Detroit Collaborative Design Center at University of Detroit Mercy, and FoodPlus Detroit, a local partnership network focused on facilitating a sustainable food system across the region, to develop a plan for “public education and engagement about urban livestock.”

The ordinance will likely address five components, the report says:
  • What kind of animals can be kept, and for what purpose (commercial, personal, or educational).
  • Zoning districts, in particular which will be allowed to have livestock. And, for example, if permission from neighbors will be required. 
  • Site requirements, such as how big a parcel of land needs to be in order to keep certain livestock.
  • Animal care standards and practices, like size requirements for shelters.
  • And, just how much administrative oversight should be put into place.
According to a proposed timeline in the report, the Urban Livestock Workgroup (ULW) — a group created to focus on crafting proposed policy, which includes residents engaged in keeping livestock, representatives from relevant city departments, Detroit Future City, and other community groups — will convene next month for its inaugural meeting. At the same time, the ULW will implement the Urban Livestock Guild (ULG), which intends to create management practices and provide a minimal level of accountability for peers.

Starting in February, public outreach to educate about urban livestock and the policy is expected to begin. Between February and April, the ULW will begin to work on creating a policy. As early as May, the City Council and the planning commission will receive a draft ordinance to consider. Then, if all goes swimmingly, City Council will vote on the ordinance in June.

News Hits reached out to Mayor Mike Duggan’s office for comment but didn’t receive a response at press time. 

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